Tag Archives: Politics

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Discussing free speech and freedom of religion on TWR

Last month I was pleased to be invited by Trans World Radio, the Christian broadcaster, to take part in their TWR Today programme. I spoke to presenter Lauren Herd about free speech in the context of blasphemy, offence and freedom of religion.

During the discussion I tried to articulate something that has been bothering me about the debate we have been having about free speech, following the Charlie Hebdo massacre:

… So when even free speech campaigners are making the case for offence, I find those arguments frustrating because I feel that argument has been settled, in favour of free speech.

To be clear: I’m not knocking those campaigners who write think-pieces that defend the right to offend.  I’ve published such pieces myself in the past few weeks, as have my colleagues at English PEN.  Rather, my frustration is over how much of the debate is still focussed on whether there is any legitimacy in censoring for reasons of religious offence.  There is none.

Moreover, it is unfettered free speech that enables the freedom of religion.  Lauren Herd gave a pithy and poetic summing up that I predict will become a staple of my rhetoric on this issue:

We may not like hearing attacks on what we believe, but it is that same freedom for one person to express, that allows us to profess what we believe.

You can listen to the show on the TWR website, on SoundCloud, or via the player below.

Continue reading Discussing free speech and freedom of religion on TWR

Hurrah for NHS bureaucrats

“I want doctors with stethoscopes not bureaucrats with clipboards”
—David Cameron, 2 April 2015, #LeadersDebate

In tolerant and inclusive twenty-first century Britain, there is still one group of people that the politicians are happy to demonise: NHS managers.  During last night’s Leaders’ Debate both David Cameron and Ed Miliband were happy to trumpet policies that would see a reduction in NHS managers and an increase in doctors.
This is obviously a vote winning policy.  It’s a simple zero sum equation that ordinary people think they understand.  When we experience the NHS, we see a front-line health professional, not a back-room manager.  So more doctors and nurses, with less bureaucrats, appeals to the natural biases we have due to the way we experience the health service.
But I was sat next to a doctor during the debates and she ridiculed the policy.  If there are less managers in the NHS, then the task of managing will fall to the doctors… Who will have less time to see patients and run clinics!  The admin load placed on doctors and nurses is already a chronic complaint.
The NHS is a vast, multi-dimensional organisation. Running it is a huge logistical challenge.  The doctors, nurses, and technicians all need to be paid, co-ordinated, and to have precisely the right equipment at their disposal when the patient turns up for their appointment.  This requires managers.  The patients themselves need to be piloted through a Byzantine network of ‘healthcare pathways’ as well as the literal corridors of the hospital.  This requires managers.
Moreover, the government and professional bodies set rigorous standards and targets for the service, which are meaningless if they are not monitored.  This requires managers.  And the facilities that power the health service are some of the biggest and most complex institutions in our society.  They need hands on the tiller to set a strategic direction.  This requires managers.
There’s no point in employing more doctors and nurses if you don’t also employ management staff as well.  Otherwise the medical staff will end up doing all the admin and that will be frustrating for everyone.
Hurrah for NHS bureaucrats!

“Amateurs talk about tactics, but professionals study logistics.”
—General Robert H. Barrow, USMC (Commandant of the Marine Corps)

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Why not do an extra leaders’ debate via #Meerkat?

There’s a new app in town, called Meerkat.  It allows you to stream live video direct from your mobile phone or tablet, with the link appearing in your Twitter stream.

Dan Pfeiffer, a former senior advisor to Barack Obama, writes:

If 2004 was about Meetup, 2008 was about Facebook, and 2012 was about Twitter, 2016 is going to be about Meerkat (or something just like it).

(He is of course talking about US politics).  I wonder whether that’s true though: I fancy there may be a premium on asynchronicity—sending messages to people to read when they have time, rather than in the moment.  How much value is there in This Is Happening Literally Right Now over the Twitter news model of This Just Happened? Meerkat does not seem to have any catch-up functionality—if you click on a  link to a stream that has ended, there’s no way to view it back.  Other services like Ustream and Google Hangouts do offer that functionality and I bet the Meerkat devs are beavering away (or whatever it is a meerkat does) to get this feature into the app. Continue reading Why not do an extra leaders’ debate via #Meerkat?

The #Sunifesto is confused about free speech

We’re 100 days out from the election, and the Sun has launched a manifesto – a #Sunifesto – for Britain.

Their last bullet point is about free speech. Incredibly, this is not about press regulation, the harmonisation of our libel laws, extremism ‘banning’ orders or police abuse of RIPA to track down whistleblowers. This is odd because The Sun is at the heart of all these issues.

Instead, it’s about the dangers of Twitter mobs.

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The paper complains about the police “wrongly” acting against those who have caused offence. “Unless it’s illegal, it’s NOT police business”.

The problem with this is that causing offence is illegal. Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 expressly criminalises ‘grossly offensive’ messages. And of course, what constitutes gross offence is in the eye of the beholder. So the highly subjective test in the law enables and encourages abuse.

The Sun blames political correctness for this and implores us to #forgawsakegrowapair. But it’s not political correctness that causes the mischief here. The principle of free speech permits not only the right to offend, but the right to say that you have been offended, even on Twitter. For many people it takes courage to speak out and tell a powerful newspaper columnist that they’re being crass and prejudiced. For many, politically correct fury is indeed “growing a pair” (we’ll ignore the sexist overtones of that phrase for now).

Appallingly, people in the UK are given prison sentences for making tasteless comments online. The Sun claims to stand up for Free Speech, but (as is perhaps inevitable, given the name of the paper) it’s a fair weather friend. Where was the Sun when Robert Riley and Jake Newsome were jailed for unpleasant social media postings?

For social media, the free speech policy must be reform of s.127. Free speech cannot just be for the newspapers. It must be for the Tweeters, too.

Debunking the myth that MPs are lazy and selfish

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On the Spectator blog, Isabel Hardman does a fantastic job in exposing a particular internet meme as a straightforward lie.

You probably know the message in question. It’s the one that has two pictures of the House of Commons side by side – one empty chamber, labelled ‘debate on welfare’ (or something like that); and another of a full chamber, with the label ‘debating MPs’ salaries’. The idea being that MPs are lazy and selfish.

I’ve just posted a comment on the article, and thought I may as well paste it here too. It fits very nicely with the counter-cultural ‘politicians aren’t all bad’ contrariness of other offerings.

Continue reading Debunking the myth that MPs are lazy and selfish

Political Correctness in Rochester & Strood

I’ll start with the happy ending: Nigel Farage is a big fat hypocrite.. Now you know where I’m going with this, I can begin.

Last week’s political storm concerned Emily Thornberry, the MP for Islington and until recently the Shadow Attorney General. In the last hours of the Rochester & Strood by-election camapign, she tweeted a photo of a house bedecked with St George flags and a white van outside. Caption: “Image from #Rochester”.
Continue reading Political Correctness in Rochester & Strood

Schrödinger’s Scotland

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Today the people of Scotland voted on whether to become an independent country. The polls closed about an hour ago.

Don’t let the silence of this blog on the issue fool you into thinking I was not interested in the campaign. Far from it. I’ve been following the battle as closely as work and family life will allow. Despite exhibiting the Englishman phenotype, I have Scottish ancestry (coal-miners of Fife, poets of Edinburgh) and of course lived, worked and loved in Scotland for many years. It always felt, and still feels like my country.

So I’m a natural unionist, and the promotion of division, separation and the creation of a new barrier (however conceptual) makes me feel sad. That said, many of the arguments for independence are beguiling. There is something enticing about a political tabula rasa. Talk of building a nation is inherently constructive and delivers an endorphine shot.

I’ve picked probably the most useless time to post a blog on this issue. The polls have closed so I cannot persuade anyone. And yet none of the vote tallies have been reported so there is nothing to analyse. Its funny to think of all those marked ballot papers, piled and yet to be counted, and consider that the result already exists as a fact of the universe, even if no-one knows what it is yet. Schrödinger’s Scotland: is it independent or not? We have to open the box to find out.

Our Human Rights

Last month, the essential Labour Campaign For Human Rights (LCHR) launched Our Human Rights.  Its a campaign to highlight how the European Convention of Human Rights, and the British Human Rights Act, have helped ordinary citizens get what they need and deserve from the state.

Too often, human rights laws seem distant from the ordinary person.  They are portrayed by those hostile to the concept as being little more than a tool for terrorists and illegal immigrants to game the legal system.  As I have written before, speaking about human rights only in terms of the most extreme cases does not persuade the ordinary voter of their importance. Continue reading Our Human Rights

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Urging Libel Reform in 'The Herald'

Today The Herald has published an opinion piece by me, urging reform of the libel law in Scotland.

Incredibly, the cradle of the Enlightenment offers fewer free speech protections than England and Wales. This state of affairs cannot be allowed to continue.

Read the whole thing in the paper, or at HeraldScotland.com.

 

How British values influence the European Court of Human Rights

In the past few months, I’ve given over a couple of posts to the Labour Party and human rights. See my report of Yvette Cooper’s speech, or Sadiq Khan’s speech, for example. As such, its worth bookmarking a recent Daily Telegraph piece by Khan, on the Human Rights Act, and Britain’s relationship with the European Court of Human Rights.

The lay-reader may appreciate a quick overview of these human rights mechanisms. First, the European Convention on Human Rights incorporates basic protections into a Europe-wide treaty. The UK government must protect human rights because it has signed a treaty saying it shall do so—the rights have not been ‘imposed’ on us by European bureaucrats. The convention also establishes a court (at Strasbourg) to hear cases of human rights abuses. We in UK and the other signatory states are bound by the rulings of the court because we chose to sign the treaty. Continue reading How British values influence the European Court of Human Rights